The Cukoo’s Nest: My Days in a Spanish Elementary School: Part 1

Often, to work as an assistant to anything is to work under the assumption of indefinite mediocrity. Interns, trainees, newbies in general, all muddle through their jobs with the hope that someday there will be promotion, advancement or at least a more decorated CV. The  young helper cannot afford to expend all that untapped intellect and potential (reminders of which are doled out in ritualistic high school graduation speeches) on the first job that comes down the pike of opportunity.  You’re just a sidekick, walking the line between slightly rewarded laborer and just making it through the day without screwing up too much.  Most simply opt for the latter, and the boredom of just making it through the day invariably results in overcompensation of self-indulgence off the clock (an entirely separate set of experiences, obviously).  There is a “language and culture” assistant program growing in the Spanish education system, progressively minded and concocted by the national government, grown from the apparent mono-linguistic habits of recent times, and it seems to be a relatively successful one.  It introduces mostly young, burgeoning teachers of English-speaking linguistic backgrounds (often strangely labeled as Anglo) to the classrooms of Spanish pupils, their designated jobs to spread (most often) North American culture and its cute novelties to the minds of Spanish youngsters.  These teacher’s assistants are meant to be professional minglers, chatting with students while they enlighten them with first-hand accounts of Thanksgiving dinners, baseball, and cut-out shamrocks of construction paper (or, if they’re lucky, southern Cajun food, Canadian francophone culture or life in a New York ghetto).  It is a great idea, and many students have undoubtedly benefited directly from it, although I am at often at least slightly disillusioned with its effectiveness and social value.  I have resisted writing about my own experiences as one of these assistants, fearing the likely slander and self-sabotage that would result. I am neither a burgeoning young teacher nor all that willing to blab on about my own culture simply because of the novelty of it.  But my experience working in the Spanish education system has taught me a lot, and it has at least facilitated an extended stay for me in a country that I have grown to love and appreciate.  I have experienced the same joys and small moments of happiness that any educator has when working with growing children.  The program has its successes and failures, of course, and one my be able to guess which of those I find  more entertaining.  And I have since realized that these are some of the reasons I like to write anyway, not to ridicule people, but to recognize the ridiculous, which is often the most interesting part of any given day.  I hope that I can separate the two.

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Our school is set in the midst of Malasaña, near the center of Madrid, an artsy-fartsy, narrow street neighborhood filled with excruciatingly hip people, bums, posh socialites, famous artists, and the standard throngs of normal people. There are the ever-present Irish pubs, and the 70’s-era cafes, historical plazas, and quirky novelty shops. A bar scene of varied social meeting points celebrates themes as disparate as 50’s big band, sanitized purple-lit chic, Star Wars, and the contained filth that Charles Bukowski would have written boner-inspired poems about.  The taste pendulum swings from pretentious to accidental charm. The school building doubles as a high school, its red brick and graffiti a perfect complement to its caged-in playground. It is a school that seems misplaced. By day, it is surrounded by jumping children playing on swings and slides, and by night, packs of drinking 20-year-olds and rampant public urination.  (I pity the poor tree that still stands nobly, near the front steps, even after an extended, steady diet of spilled Mahou beer and piss).

Inside this building is where I spend most of my week.

The Christmas Pageant 

In the waning days of December, when Christmas present-buying and ceaseless carols have effectively drained the good will (and the bank accounts) out of humanity, children all over the world collect in bubbly excitement to perform, in pageants, hamming it up for parents and peers.  So in the true spirit of Christmas, what better way to celebrate the birth of the savior of the world than to line up a crowd of fifth-graders on a stage, put afro wigs on them, paint their faces with black make-up (hell, let’s just call it shoe polish), and instruct them to sing a “soul” version of Silent Night? And then let’s put some kind of velvety robes on them, as a vague mix of references to Whoopie Goldberg, gospel, and Catholicism.

I am aware that my American political sensibility can be over-sensitive and skewed at times.  But I couldn’t help but be reminded of those red-painted faces of Anglo-American actors in 1950’s westerns, shameless characters who as “injuns”, feather head-dresses sloppily wrapped around their heads by make up and wardrobe, circled wagons and slung flimsy arrows and, like mute savages, endured awkward interactions with the entitled white man.  Now, in modern times, it is embarrassing to watch.

I suggested, in all my cultural superiority and worldly awareness, to drop the face paint in the Christmas Festival as it may offend the parents of the Dominican kids, for example.  I wouldn’t say my mention fell on deaf ears; it was at least met with passing consideration, if not good-natured confusion. In the end, the children sang gospel Christmas carols with their own face colors, and the afro wigs remained, although I suspect the lack of face decoration was more due to the logistical problem of actually covering the faces of 22 children with black make up and less to do with any cultural enlightenment or sudden awareness of racism.  Still, I would purport that unless you are Mel Brooks and you know what you’re doing, stay away from burlesque and social parody, especially that which is derived from movies. But then again, if there is in fact no one to be offended, who am I to interfere?  (take a moment, though, and ponder a soul-gospel version of Silent Night).

In our school, the Christmas spectacular is squeezed into a dilapidated gymnasium, which with doors closed is a hermetically sealed chamber that happens to trap sound better than a recording studio.  When a couple hundred roaring and squealing babies of various ages are collected in this box, the noise is unbearable, and teachers scurry around the children with wide, exhausted eyes and flailing arms, like theatre ushers herding cats.  The music teacher, in particular, was on the verge of a full emotional breakdown in the midst of the commotion, as she dashed around the gym between shows, weaving through parents and children with cardboard stage props, flutes, and cymbals under her arms.  During most of the performances, she was in front, the composer, guiding the distracted kids in a prolonged slapstick recital.  At the end of the show, she did finally break down in a mix of frantic smiles and tears, as her fellow teachers (myself included) patted her on the back and gave her hugs of approval.

The laughable locale turned out to be part of the charm of the show, however.  Sometimes a twiggy bush with a few strands of lights in the corner of a living room radiates more warmth and comfort than the majesty and symmetrical perfection of a Macy’s Christmas tree. And it was refreshing, after all the horrors of Christmas, after all the packed stores full consumers under duress, to see children perform for their parents, who, full of pride and adoration, couldn’t have cared less that they were lined up against the back wall of a cold basement gym, each one with eyes trained on their own little ones, zooming in with point-and-shoot cameras.  These kids worked hard, some volunteered to do difficult things in front of a lot of people, and for a moment I watched them as they realized, their growing minds working, how a bit of work can be rewarding and fun in ways they didn’t expect.  And for a passing moment, I was proud. I suppose this may be the closest thing I’ll experience to being a parent.

*       *      *

In the next installment of The Cukoo’s Nest, expect spontaneous vomiting, plastic testicles, and  painful linguistic gaffes.


7 thoughts on “The Cukoo’s Nest: My Days in a Spanish Elementary School: Part 1

  1. I too would like to hear more of this side of your Madrid experience. Bring on the ridiculousness (including the fake testicles and linguistic slips)!

  2. Came here from FB, thank you for saying what I have been unable to. Absolutely perfect.

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